Is Organic Wheat Gluten-Free?

Confusion may be related to how products are marketed

Getty Images/Michael Pohuski

Gluten is a type of protein molecule found in wheat, barley, and rye that forms within the kernel of a grain as it grows. People with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity need to avoid these grains as their bodies will react badly to them when consumed.

Both conditions are autoimmune disorders in which the immune system launches an attack on substances or cells that are otherwise harmless. With celiac disease, the response directly affects the finger-like villi of the intestines and triggers a cascade of symptoms ranging from diarrhea to indigestion and vomiting.

Because of this, people with celiac disease commonly turn to alternative grains to replace those with gluten (including amaranth, quinoa, and millet).

But what about organic wheat? Are these more likely to be gluten-free or, at the very least, be lower in gluten that non-organic wheat?

The Verdict

The verdict is simple: organic wheat is neither gluten-free nor low in gluten despite what some may lead you to believe. Growing wheat organically (without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides) may be better for the environment and your health, but it doesn't alter the structure of the gluten proteins in the grain. Therefore, all wheat—including organic wheat—will contain gluten.

The only "wheat" a person with celiac disease can safely consume is buckwheat, and that's not even a wheat. Rather, it is the seed of a flowering fruit related to rhubarb that is completely without gluten.

Where the Confusion Began

Much of the confusion related to the terms "organic" and "gluten-free" stemmed from how the products are marketed. Both were these classifications were widely introduced at the same time and promoted as "healthier" alternatives to non-organic and non-gluten products.

Meanwhile, other terms like "free-range" and "hormone-free" were introduced into the dietary lexicon, suggesting that consumers could embrace a healthier and more ethical lifestyle by the foods they picked.

While some of the terms (like "gluten-free" and "organic") are strictly regulated and require certification, others (like "hormone-free" and "free-range") don't require such stringent measures.

Unfortunately, most consumers aren't aware of this and are quick to interpret terms like "organic" and "gluten-free" as meaning the same thing. As such, they may purchase a gluten-free product assuming that it is organic, or buy an organic product assuming that has low or no gluten.

Some people will even buy gluten-free products thinking that they are inherently better for them when, in fact, they aren't any more or less nutritious than the alternative. It is only among people with gluten intolerance that gluten-free products may be considered inherently "healthier."

Safety of Ancient Wheat

Ancient forms of wheat (such as einkorn, emmet, kamut, and spelt) are often grown organically and embraced by some as "safer" forms of grain. Certainly, health blogs and newsletters have regularly offered accounts of people who have consumed these grains without symptoms.

Unfortunately, the reports don't coincide with the research. In fact, a study published in 2013 tested various types of ancient wheat (including einkorn, emmet, and Graziella Ra) and found that all elicited immune system responses, sometimes severe.

Moreover, the response varied from person to person, suggesting that there is no way to know whether an ancient wheat will be more or less toxic than regular wheat. The advice, therefore, is to avoid any wheat or wheat-based product, organic or ancient, if you have gluten intolerance.

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Article Sources
  • Šuligoj, T.; Gregorini, A.; Colomba, M. et al. "Evaluation of the safety of ancient strains of wheat in coeliac disease reveals heterogeneous small intestinal T cell responses suggestive of coeliac toxicity." Clin Nutr. 2013;32(6):1043-9. DOI: 10.1016/j.clnu.2013.02.003.